Tuesday, January 04, 2011

To Beat Back Poverty, Pay the Poor

The city of Rio de Janeiro is infamous for the fact that one can look out from a precarious shack on a hill in a miserable favela and see practically into the window of a luxury high-rise condominium.
Parts of Brazil look like southern California. Parts of it look like Haiti. Many countries display great wealth side by side with great poverty. But until recently, Brazil was the most unequal country in the world.

Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.

Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent of earners. (see this great series in Slate by Timothy Noah on American inequality) Productivity among low and middle-income American workers increased, but their incomes did not. If current trends continue, the United States may soon be more unequal than Brazil.

A single social program is transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.
Several factors contribute to Brazil’s astounding feat. But a major part of Brazil’s achievement is due to a single social program that is now transforming how countries all over the world help their poor.

The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers. The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements.
The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention.
The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families. The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow.

Most of our Fixes columns so far have been about successful-but-small ideas. They face a common challenge: how to make them work on a bigger scale. This one is different. Brazil is employing a version of an idea now in use in some 40 countries around the globe, one already successful on a staggeringly enormous scale. This is likely the most important government antipoverty program the world has ever seen. It is worth looking at how it works, and why it has been able to help so many people.

In Mexico, Oportunidades today covers 5.8 million families, about 30 percent of the population. An Oportunidades family with a child in primary school and a child in middle school that meets all its responsibilities can get a total of about $123 a month in grants. Students can also get money for school supplies, and children who finish high school in a timely fashion get a one-time payment of $330.

A family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit.
Bolsa Familia, which has similar requirements, is even bigger. Brazil’s conditional cash transfer programs were begun before the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but he consolidated various programs and expanded it. It now covers about 50 million Brazilians, about a quarter of the country. It pays a monthly stipend of about $13 to poor families for each child 15 or younger who is attending school, up to three children.
Families can get additional payments of $19 a month for each child of 16 or 17 still in school, up to two children. Families that live in extreme poverty get a basic benefit of about $40, with no conditions.

Do these sums seem heartbreakingly small? They are. But a family living in extreme poverty in Brazil doubles its income when it gets the basic benefit. It has long been clear that Bolsa Familia has reduced poverty in Brazil. But research has only recently revealed its role in enabling Brazil to reduce economic inequality.

The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are working with individual governments to spread these programs around the globe, providing technical help and loans. Conditional cash transfer programs are now found in 14 countries in Latin America and some 26 other countries, according to the World Bank. (One of the programs was in New York City — a small, privately-financed pilot program called Opportunity NYC. A preliminary evaluation showed mixed success, but it is too soon to draw conclusions.) Each program is tailored to local conditions. Some in Latin America, for example, emphasize nutrition. One in Tanzania is experimenting with conditioning payments on an entire community’s behavior.

The program fights poverty in two ways. One is straightforward: it gives money to the poor. This works. And no, the money tends not to be stolen or diverted to the better-off. Brazil and Mexico have been very successful at including only the poor. In both countries it has reduced poverty, especially extreme poverty, and has begun to close the inequality gap.

The idea’s other purpose — to give children more education and better health — is longer term and harder to measure. But measured it is — Oportunidades is probably the most-studied social program on the planet. The program has an evaluation unit and publishes all data. There have also been hundreds of studies by independent academics. The research indicates that conditional cash transfer programs in Mexico and Brazil do keep people healthier, and keep kids in school.

In Mexico today, malnutrition, anemia and stunting have dropped, as have incidences of childhood and adult illnesses. Maternal and infant deaths have been reduced. Contraceptive use in rural areas has risen and teen pregnancy has declined. But the most dramatic effects are visible in education. Children in Oportunidades repeat fewer grades and stay in school longer. Child labor has dropped. In rural areas, the percentage of children entering middle school has risen 42 percent. High school inscription in rural areas has risen by a whopping 85 percent. The strongest effects on education are found in families where the mothers have the lowest schooling levels. Indigenous Mexicans have particularly benefited, staying in school longer.

Bolsa Familia is having a similar impact in Brazil. One recent study found that it increases school attendance and advancement — particularly in the northeast, the region of Brazil where school attendance is lowest, and particularly for older girls, who are at greatest risk of dropping out. The study also found that Bolsa has improved child weight, vaccination rates and use of pre-natal care.

When I traveled in Mexico in 2008 to report on Oportunidades, I met family after family with a distinct before and after story. Parents whose work consisted of using a machete to cut grass had children who, thanks to Oportunidades, had finished high school and were now studying accounting or nursing. Some families had older children who were malnourished as youngsters, but younger children who had always been healthy because Oportunidades had arrived in time to help them eat better. In the city of Venustiano Carranza, in Mexico’s Puebla state, I met Hortensia Alvarez Montes, a 54-year-old widow whose only income came from taking in laundry. Her education stopped in sixth grade, as did that of her first three children. But then came Oportunidades, which kept her two youngest children in school. They were both finishing high school when I visited her. One of them told me she planned to attend college.

Related More From Fixes
Read previous contributions to this series.
Outside of Brazil and Mexico, conditional cash transfer programs are newer and smaller. Nevertheless, there is ample research showing that they, too, increase consumption, lower poverty, and increase school enrollment and use of health services.

If conditional cash transfer programs are to work properly, many more schools and health clinics are needed. But governments can’t always keep up with the demand — and sometimes they can only keep up by drastically reducing quality. If this is a problem for medium-income countries like Brazil and Mexico, imagine the challenge in Honduras or Tanzania.

For skeptics who believe that social programs never work in poor countries and that most of what’s spent on them gets stolen, conditional cash transfer programs offer a convincing rebuttal. Here are programs that help the people who most need help, and do so with very little waste, corruption or political interference. Even tiny, one-village programs that succeed this well are cause for celebration. To do this on the scale that Mexico and Brazil have achieved is astounding.

Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.”

Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet STANLEY FISH NYTimes

In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995) the Supreme Court overturned a statute requiring any person who prints a notice or flyer promoting a candidate or an issue to identify the communication’s author by name.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, grounded his opinion in an account of meaning he takes from an earlier case (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti):
“The inherent worth of . . . speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual.”
Or, in other words, a writing or utterance says what it says independently of who happens to say it; the information conveyed does not vary with the identification of the speaker.

There are at least two problems with this reasoning. First, it is not true that a text’s meaning is the same whether or not its source is known. Suppose I receive an anonymous note asserting that I have been betrayed by a friend. I will not know what to make of it — is it a cruel joke, a slander, a warning, a test? But if I manage to identify the note’s author — it’s a friend or an enemy or a known gossip — I will be able to reason about its meaning because I will know what kind of person composed it and what motives that person might have had.

In the same way, if I am the recipient of a campaign message supporting a candidate or a policy, my assessment of what I am reading or hearing will depend on my knowledge of the sender. Is he, she or it an industry representative, a lobbyist, the A.C.L.U., the Club for Growth? The identity of the speaker is part of the information and is therefore part — a large part — of the meaning. (“Consider the source” is not only commonplace advice; it is a theory of interpretation.)

The practice of withholding the identity of the speaker is strategic, and one purpose of the strategy (this is the second problem with anonymity) is to avoid responsibility and accountability for what one is saying. Anonymity, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago observes, allows Internet bloggers “to create for themselves a shame-free zone in which they can inflict shame on others.” The power of the bloggers, she continues, “depends on their ability to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences” for those they injure.

Nussbaum is writing as a co-editor of, and contributor to, a new set of essays on the dark side of the Internet titled “The Offensive Internet.” The question that drives the volume is “what can be done about irresponsible information” spread by the Internet, a medium that allows slander to “be done with a few keystrokes, with complete anonymity, and . . . with no fear that the Internet provider on whose website the slur is found will somehow be held responsible for incorrect . . . or defamatory statements”?
In the course of the volume the Internet is characterized as a cesspool, a porn store, a form of pinkeye, a raunchy fraternity, a graffiti–filled bathroom wall, a haven for sociopaths, and the breeder of online mobs who are no better than “masked Klan members” in their determination to “interfere with victims’ basic rights.”

The authors make these charges against the background of the standard honorific description of the Internet: it is the ultimate realization of “the marketplace of ideas,” that non-physical space dedicated “to the emergence of truth.” Cass Sunstein invokes this hoary metaphor only to call it into question. Rumors cascade, Sunstein explains, when someone relies on what someone else has said and then spreads a falsehood as truth. The Internet multiplies the effect exponentially: an “initial blunder . . . can start a process by which a number of people participate in creating serious mistakes.” Rather then producing truth, the free and open marketplace of the Internet “will lead many people to accept damaging and destructive falsehoods,” and unless there is “some kind of chilling effect on false statements,” the “proper functioning of democracy itself” may be endangered.

An unconstrained marketplace of ideas is often said to facilitate informed decision-making by providing all the information, even erroneous information, that is out there. But how, asks Brian Leiter in a powerful essay, is the process of deliberation helped by the anonymous poster who reports falsely “that Jane Doe has herpes” and announces “that he would like to sodomize her?” The Internet and the real world, Leiter concludes, “would both be better places” if Internet providers were held accountable for the scurrilous and harmful material they disseminate.

How might that be managed? The answer given by the authors in this volume involves the repeal or modification of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that no provider of an Internet service shall be treated as the publisher of information provided by another. That is, the provider is not liable for what others have said, and courts have interpreted that section as immunizing providers even when they “have knowledge that [a statement] is defamatory or invasive of privacy.”

Saul Levmore (Nussbaum’s co-editor) suggests that immunity might be conditioned on the willingness of a provider either to take down a message after notice of its falsity or defamatory character has been given, or “to enforce non-anonymity” and thus open the way for an injured party to seek redress. The law, writes Anupam Chander, “should allow the individual to find information to lead her to the person who committed the privacy invasion.” As it is now, with an expansive reading of Section 230, “the law no longer puts any obstacles in the way of the Sociopath” who, traveling on the Internet, can go anywhere and spray venom that lasts forever. (Leiter)

But, as Geoffrey Stone reminds us in his essay, putting obstacles in the way of anyone’s speech (even the speech of sociopaths or perverts or subversives ) has been frowned on by the Supreme Court ever since New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which holds that, at least as regards public officials, debate should be uninhibited and wide open even if it is “vehement” and “caustic” and contains both “factual error” and “defamatory content.” In subsequent decisions, the category of “public officials” was widened first to include “public persons” and then to include persons who wander into the ambit of a public event, in short, almost everyone.

The idea (which goes back at least as far as Milton’s Areopagitica) is that false and defamatory speech openly published will provoke counter speech and lead to correction; the truth will ultimately prevail. (Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”) But however likely that happy outcome may be in the world of books and newspapers (and I have always thought it extremely unlikely), the special conditions and powers of the Internet conspire against it and the more likely outcome is the one prophesied by Alexander Pope in the final lines of “The Dunciad”: “Light dies before thy uncreating word . . . / And universal darkness buries all.”

What is remarkable about this volume is that the legal academics who make the arguments I have rehearsed are by and large strong free-speech advocates. Yet faced with the problems posed by the Internet, they start talking about “low value” speech (a concept strong first-amendment doctrine rejects) and saying things like “autonomy resides not in free choice per se but in choosing wisely” and “society needs not an absence of ‘chill,’ but an optimal level.”(In short, let’s figure out which forms of speech we should discourage.)

Perhaps the most amazing statement is made by Daniel J. Solove when he declares that “the law is hampered because it overprotects free speech.” The conventional first-amendment wisdom is that free speech cannot be overprotected, but that wisdom is put on trial by these thinkers. Some years ago, I wrote a book titled “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too.” This book could be titled “There is Such a Thing as the Free Unregulated Internet and It’s a Bad Thing, Too.”

GOP owned & paid for by Big Business! Proof: Issa to business: Tell me what to fix

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wants the oil industry, drug manufacturers and other trade groups and companies to tell him which Obama administration regulations to target this year.

The incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee - in letters sent to more than 150 trade associations, companies and think tanks last month - requested a list of existing and proposed regulations that would harm job growth.

"It was a broad net that we cast," Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella said.

Bardella did not have a complete list of groups that received an inquiry from Issa or their responses.

But a partial list obtained by POLITICO includes ones sent Dec. 13 to Duke Energy, the Association of American Railroads, FMC Corp., Toyota and Bayer. Others receiving inquiries from Issa over the course of the month included the American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA) and entities representing health care and telecommunication providers.

The goal is to investigate the Obama administration's promise through the 2009 economic stimulus bill and other measures to create jobs, which "has gone unfilled, I guess is the nicest way to put it," Bardella said.

"Is there something that we can do to try to ease that [regulatory] burden and stimulate job creation?" he added. "Is there a pattern emerging? Is there a consistent practice or regulation that hurts jobs? Until you have all the facts, you really can't make a lot of determinations and judgments."

At the same time, Issa is getting his cue from and a voice to a chorus of largely disgruntled industry groups and companies that have collectively groaned about regulations in the pipeline and on the books.

"I believe for the last couple of years that we were honestly shut out of this debate at least on the House side," NPRA President Charles Drevna said. "Our policy positions haven't changed one iota. [But] is there a better chance of what I would consider a more fair hearing? Absolutely." Drevna received a letter from Issa late last month.

Issa has no qualms about giving Drevna and other administration critics a louder mouthpiece.

"As a trade organization with members that must comply with the regulatory state, I ask for your assistance in identifying existing and proposed regulations that have negatively impacted job growth in your members' industry," Issa wrote in a Dec. 8 letter to NAM. "Additionally, suggestions on reforming identified regulations and the rulemaking process would be appreciated."

The letter to NAM is a template for ones Issa sent other groups over the course of last month. In the NAM letter, Issa notes that federal agencies in fiscal year 2010 "promulgated 43 new regulations" ranging from new limits on "effluent" discharges from construction sites to rules for Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations. The "effluent" rule, Issa charged, will cost $810.8 million annually, resulting in the closure of 147 construction firms and the loss of 7,257 jobs.

The list of regulatory grievances appears wide-ranging.

Rosario Palmieri, NAM’s vice president for regulatory policy, and Drevna both highlighted EPA greenhouse gas controls for major emitters that went into effect Sunday.

Palmieri said the group also highlighted in their response to Issa upcoming EPA decisions over whether to tighten limits on ground-level ozone and controlling hazardous air pollutants from incinerators and boilers.

Many Democrats and the environmental community certainly would push back on efforts to rein in EPA greenhouse and other controls simply in the name of preserving jobs. "The Clean Air Act is one of job creation, not job destruction, plain and simple," said Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. These controls give companies "the lead time and certainty to invest and bring products to the market and actually create jobs."

NAM's "high-priority" regulatory list also includes OSHA consultation, noise and other policies, upcoming Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission controls regarding over-the-counter derivatives, Transportation Department limits on hours of service for truck drivers, and implementing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush.

"These are all high-priority regulations that can cost manufacturing jobs and will if implemented the wrong way or will as currently proposed or finalized," Palmieri said. "We're anxious for some oversight of these programs."

He said there is a growing voice from "members on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, recognizing that the cumulative burden of regulation is a real problem and if we want to create more jobs and improve this economy, we need to get a handle on it."

Democrats, though, see this as a way for Issa to turn a partisan corner and dig his heels into attacking the administration in the next Congress.

"He's going about it in a way that's not gathering a lot of attention," said one Democratic committee aide. "This is where they're starting to cross the line into the political. They're definitely setting up this committee to go after the administration."

One person knowledgeable about the matter tells POLITICO that Issa on Dec. 29 appears to have re-sent more than 75 letters to administration officials.

Bardella acknowledged that Issa re-sent a host of unanswered missives recently. "This is something we've been working on since the election," he said. "Before we start something new, we want to get answers to the questions that have been ignored."

This includes past letters to Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and White House Counsel Robert Bauer regarding reports by POLITICO and others about the use of official travel for political purposes. In his letter to Bauer, Issa notes he wrote last June to the heads of 21 federal departments and agencies "requesting documents and information about the extent to which White House political personnel have been involved with planning, directing, or coordinating the travel of department and agency officials to participate in official or political public events."

Issa said that former Oversight and Investigations Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) did a similar probe of Bush administration officials in the prior Congress.

A letter from Issa and top Judiciary Committee Republican Lamar Smith initially sent Dec. 16, 2009, to Attorney General Eric Holder forwards information Republicans on those two panels received into the activities of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and reiterating the Republicans' request for a Justice Department criminal investigation.

Another letter initially sent in October 2009 to Holder asks about "new media efforts [that] may be covertly attempting to shape public opinion," citing reports that Justice officials were anonymously posting online comments attacking critics of the administration.

One initially sent Oct. 15, 2009, asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to clarify a letter he sent Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Issa's request followed a story by POLITICO at the time indicating that then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel coordinated an "assault" on Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and other administration critics by having Salazar and three other cabinet secretaries write letters to Brewer asking if she "wished to forfeit taxpayer money directed to Arizona by the stimulus" bill, Issa wrote.

Democrats are labeling the inquiries as partisan in tone, which Bardella dismisses. "Asking a question shouldn't be labeled partisan or political," he said. "The most constructive way forward would be to resubmit the questions, which we fully expect to be answered, and then, hopefully, move on."

© 2011 Capitol News POLITICO

To Reduce Deficit, Most Americans say Tax the Rich More

A survey from CBS News' "60 Minutes" and Vanity Fair magazine shows that most Americans, given a set limited choices for balancing the national budget, would prefer to see taxes increased for the wealthy.

As many as 61 percent said they would prefer increasing taxes on the rich over three other options: cutting defense spending, cutting Medicare or cutting Social Security. Another 20 percent chose cutting defense spending as the best option. Just 4 percent said they would cut Medicare, and just 3 percent said they would cut Social Security.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those with higher incomes were less inclined to say increasing taxes on the wealthy would be the best option. Nevertheless, as many as 46 percent of Americans making more than $100,000 said it was the best option -- 26 points higher than the next-preferred option, cutting defense spending.

The poll comes as Congress considers a future vote to raise the national debt ceiling. Several Republicans are hoping to use the debt ceiling vote as leverage to pass spending cuts. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday threatened to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless Social Security is reformed. He cited some means of reforming the program that have gained bipartisan support such as raising the retirement age -- a move that would cut off Social Security for a segment of the population.

In a CBS News poll released in early December, as many as 73 percent of Americans called the budget deficit a very serious problem. More than half of Americans said at the time that Congress should let the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy expire.
However, President Obama cut a deal with Republicans to extend the tax cuts for everyone. The deal, which included other spending measures, won strong bipartisan support, even though it increases the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars.